My most interesting cave trips over the past few years have been in the company of microbiologists who study repositories of bizarre life that feeds off minerals and gas as opposed to sunlight and oxygen. Although blind fish, cave crayfish and other endangered species have been found in subterranean rivers, no microbiological work has been done in Rumbling Falls. Not for the first time I marvel that the state of Tennessee came within a hairbreadth of dumping millions of gallons of treated sewage into this cave.
The town of Spencer (pop. 1,713), founded in 1840, sits atop the Cumberland Plateau on the edge of Fall Creek Falls State Park. Just out from the center of town is a lot of undeveloped real estate, much of it offering stunning mountain views suitable for vacation retreats. Only one thing has held developers back: the sewage problem.
Like many small towns, Spencer has no municipal sewage system. Residents are required to install septic tanks. The sandstone cap that protects the limestone beds of the plateau has very slow surface drainage, especially during heavy rains. Translation: The contents of septic tanks sometimes bubble up out of the ground like the crude oil on Jed Clampett's property. A 1996 study showed that 46% of Spencer's 538 septic systems were releasing sewage into the yards of houses, schools and businesses.
The tank behind the police station and jail routinely overflowed, covering the floor of one cell with noxious seepage. "It backs up here, and you can't stand the smell," Sheriff Donnie Evans said. When the jail sludge finally dissipated, it flowed downhill into a residential backyard—the one behind the frame house where the mayor's parents live. Mayor Terry Crain, like other local politicians, was used to phone calls demanding that something be done.
Some of the undeveloped property belonged to a resident in a position to do something: Shelby Rhinehart, the senior member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Rhinehart, who died in September, was chair of the House Commerce Committee and one of the state's most powerful lawmakers. As a former mayor of Spencer, he was well aware of the problems faced by its residents. Over several years in the mid-1990s he procured federal grants and long-term federal loans to pay for a sewage plant.
The city would pay interest on the loans of about $28,000 per month, or $41 per sewage customer (not counting the costs that residents would pay for actual operation of the plant). The original plans called for discharge of the treated effluent into the Caney Fork River, eight miles away. But when bids came in, easements and pipeline costs would have pushed the residential sewage bill to more than $100 per month. So the town settled on a smaller outlet close at hand: Dry Fork Creek, a wooded stream that the state would later designate Tier II, or of very high quality. Although no one knew it at the time, Dry Fork Creek is the principal source of the river flowing through Rumbling Falls Cave.
Town managers insisted that the treated outflow from the plant, which would serve fewer than 700 households, would not degrade the stream. State officials offered minimal public notice of the plan and held no public hearing on it, but before it could become official, the town had to ask the state's Water Quality Control Board for a permit to discharge effluent into Dry Fork. Rhinehart assumed the permit would be granted.
Secrecy and Caving have always gone together, usually for good reasons. When the existence of a large, wild cave is made public, it can be overrun by ill-equipped novices who harm cave life or destroy delicate formations. If a novice is injured underground, a rescue attempt becomes national news. The negative publicity prompts landowners to deny access to the cave to everyone.
But there has always been a more personal reason for secrecy, akin to the reason that anglers guard favorite fishing holes. It is human nature to feel proprietary about one's discoveries. There's an expression you hear around TAG, scooping booty, for pushing into virgin passages in a cave discovered and still under survey by someone else.
One of the most famous TAG cavers—and a longtime friend of Marion Smith's—is Jim Smith (no relation), who was briefly notorious in the 1970s for scooping booty in Mexico's S�tano de San Agust�n, one of the world's deepest known caves. Marion did not tell Jim about the Rumbling Falls survey, and as a result Jim hasn't spoken to him since. "I decided I didn't want anyone else with an ego as big as mine involved in this project," Marion explains.